Southwest Denver parents to district: improve Kepner now

Parents and community members from southwest Denver met with the city’s school board Monday to share their thoughts on four possible school models that could transform a struggling middle school in their neighborhood.

While the committee did not make an explicit recommendation on which models they’d like to see at Kepner Middle School, they did make a direct request: fix their middle school now.

“I applied [to send my children] to STRIVE,” one Kepner mother said through a translator. “Because, right now, I’m not in accordance with Kepner.”

Her student is now on a waiting list.

Kepner Middle School is one of the district’s lowest performing middle schools, and has been for years. Parents have voiced concern over the school’s climate. They say bullying among students and school disrespect for parents, who generally only speak Spanish, is rampant. Earlier this year, the district announced they would phase out the school while introducing two new schools in the building.

The transition is expected to begin with the 2015 school year.

But that’s not soon enough, some said Monday.

As part of the district’s planning phase, they formed a committee of parents, community members, and special interest groups to develop a vision for the school and review applications for new school models to take over the Kepner campus.

The committee toured high-performing schools in the district and met with representatives from the four schools biding for Kepner in April.

That process has left parents wondering, a mother said, “what about my kids [at Kepner] now?”

District officials did not respond to those concerns during the meeting. However, previously they have said the district is lending additional support to the school and have seen evidence of improvement at other schools as they’ve been phased-out.

Vying for the Kepner campus are three charters and a district-run school conceived by some of the current staff at Kepner.

Both the STRIVE and DSST networks have made pitches, as well as the education-advocacy group City Year, which has never operated a school before.

The district-run school would be called the Kepner International Dual Language Academy and would be based on a popular program that the school currently offers, which takes students to Europe as part of their language studies.

The committee, in their report, found reasons to like each school and had plenty of concerns, too.

Broadly, parents wondered if their students would be guaranteed a seat if the school became part of a popular charter network or if their students have to take an admittance exam. They also were concerned about whether charters that traditionally have smaller student populations could operate in a more populous neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said any student living within the Kepner boundaries would be guaranteed a seat at the building and there would be no admittance test.

Other concerns included whether any of the programs that applied to take over Kepner would have a robust anti-bullying program and how the schools planned to keep parents actively engaged and informed. Another top concern was whether the new schools would have enough bilingual teachers who understand the neighborhood’s culture and could effectively communicate with its students and parents.

DPS board President Happy Hanes told the committee she expects the district to answer those questions when officials make their recommendations to board on which schools to authorize at a special June 2 board meeting.

Kepner parents presentation to DPS board

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.